Stoking the Arts to Fire Up a City

North Hollywood, Calif., strives to end its long decline by turning itself into the SoHo of the West

MABEL LANGDON has watched this Los Angeles suburb decline since 1934, when she arrived with her husband, silent-film star Harry Langdon. Though she has watched the number of vacant lots rise for six decades while property values sank, she thinks that's all about to change.

And she expects an influx of arts to change it.

The idea behind a new city-government program called ``NoHo,'' like Manhattan's artsy SoHo but with a new twist, is a kinder, gentler community-redevelopment fit for the recessionary 1990s. NoHo, a name coined from its location, is as much a concept as a place, say its creators: to use art as an agent not only for social but also for economic progress.

That means going beyond the prevalent use of theater, music, dance, and visual arts to reinvigorate a dying downtown, to a larger social agenda that embraces the entire city of Los Angeles.

``This idea is a wonderful way to bring the neighborhood back,'' Ms. Langdon says from her memorabilia-filled home. ``It's a way to attract people and business to the area.''

The official ``NoHo Arts District'' is a three-square-mile area in the heart of North Hollywood, a run-down, grimy town of 120,000 whose average household income is 14 percent lower than the Los Angeles average. Creation of the district was the first act, just over a year ago, of a newly formed local cultural-affairs committee of artists and merchants from the area. David Cox, director of the American Renegade Theater, one block from the center of NoHo, brought the idea to the committee.

``I looked around at the setting and said to myself, `We're in the middle of the media - Warner Brothers, Disney, NBC - that feed the world. What a great place for an Off-Broadway arts complex.' ''

NoHo is at the forefront of a far broader idea that city cultural leaders have been working on for five years: the creation of communities defined by shared cultural interests - not just streets and homes. Strong magnet communities like NoHo, that draw people across their usual boundaries, are a key element.

``We are trying to stop the city's Balkanization into tiny interest groups and neighborhoods,'' says Al Nodal, general manager for the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department (CAD). ``We want to create crosstown community networks that hold together through common interests, not geographical boundaries.''

To do this, the CAD has a new master plan to put eight regional arts service and performance centers around the city. A NoHo center opens in June on Lankershim Blvd., near the heart of NoHo. Others are on the drawing board. These centers will help arts communities develop by providing grant money, services, and theater space. At the same time, they will create a larger community by sharing artists and audiences among the various centers. National model

CAD officials say NoHo will be an important proving ground for their new approach, and the concept is being watched as a national model as well.

``NoHo is a very promising program ... [it's] not being done anywhere else in the country,'' says George Peterson, senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington. ``NoHo is an innovative idea that fits in with the broader conceptions of community development in the recessionary '90s.''

The two important trends today, Mr. Peterson says, are community revitalization built from the grass roots up, and cities trying to deal with increasing spatial segregation.

The first official act of the NoHo Arts District was a performing-arts festival in June, for which the L.A. cultural affairs department gave $5,000. The festival was held on the plaza of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences on the corner of Magnolia and Lankershim, the heart of NoHo. The two-day festival offered 35 plays at the seven theaters located within walking distance of the town core, live dance and music ensembles, arts, crafts, food booths, and sidewalk performers, as well as a film festival.

Nov. 1 was the next milestone, when residents prevailed upon the L.A. City Council to virtually eliminate the high zoning-waiver fees required of those who want to live and work in the same space. The change will go into effect in March.

All this has added up to the hottest new arts and theater district in the San Fernando Valley, the vast Los Angeles bedroom community that is America's largest suburb.

NoHo is the fruition of years of quiet but steady activity in the North Hollywood area. It has long been home to many artisans and technical support shops for the nearby film industry. Because of the cheap rents and the availability of loft space, a diverse community of artists, galleries, and performing groups has grown up. When the district was formed last year, the area had seven legitimate theaters. Now it has 16.

A handful of popular coffee shops have nurtured a bohemian atmosphere that many say is the soul of NoHo.

``I like the funky, grass-roots feel the area has. It's what makes it NoHo,'' says Brian Sheehan, owner of the Eclectic Cafe, across the street from the NoHo logo mural. It began as a cafe and is now a restaurant where he offers art exhibits and live music. He says that, over the past year, two chain restaurants have opened and closed in the area. ``I guess the neighborhood is just too grass-roots for that kind of thing,'' he says.

For now, the jewel in the crown of NoHo is the renovation of the classic 1926 movie house, the El Portal Theater, one block from the town core. Slated to reopen with two theaters in January, it is the new home of one of the oldest theater troupes in the Valley, the Actor's Alley.

North Hollywood's Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) has been enthusiastic. ``[The El Portal] is a linchpin to revitalizing the area,'' says Lillian Burkenheim, CRA director. The CRA has given the El Portal $250,000. But the city agency learned its lesson about top-down redevelopment from a $27 million failure in the heart of downtown Los Angeles when it bankrolled the now-defunct Los Angeles Theater Center in the 1980s. The CRA made the final $50,000 check to El Portal a matching grant.

The CRA already has a substantial investment in North Hollywood. The massive public/private $61 million North Hollywood Project includes 836 new housing units, a $12 million shopping center, and $4 million in public improvements. Also, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences - a six-stage project that began in 1981 and was complete through its second stage in 1991.

The Academy complex has office and retail space, as well as apartments, 20 percent of which are offered to low-income residents selected by a local artists' union. It houses the television academy and has hosted film presentations, blood drives, and concerts.

To date, the CRA has given $7 million to the Academy project. Another $14 million is earmarked, but the project is on hold for now because the private-donation side of the equation has dried up.

The Academy complex has been a controversial presence in NoHo, local activists say. The publisher of NoHo Magazine, Jim Berg, says the Academy project is an example of the failed policies of the 1980s. He observes that the new construction and high rents are at odds with the more modest, grass-roots nature of the rest of NoHo.

Noting that the office space stands half empty and the complex is surrounded by vacant lots, he says the academy is a reluctant neighbor. ``They won't lower their two-dollar-a-square-foot rent. Right across the street, rents are only 50 cents. They're outsiders, with little if any connection to the neighborhood,'' he says. CRA officials say the reason for higher rent is that the Academy project is more costly new construction.

Other activists have complained that project employees come from outside North Hollywood, that the complex has generated few if any jobs for the community, and that nearby businesses have not benefited.

Eager to be in tune with the neighborhood, the local branch of the CRA sent out 2,000 questionnaires in October, asking merchants and residents what they most wanted by way of community redevelopment. ``Of the 400 returned, most mentioned NoHo, [and] all said they wanted rehabilitation of existing buildings,'' director Burkenheim says. None wanted new construction. The CRA has retooled its North Hollywood Development Project, allocating $2 million for rehabilitation of existing structures.

Mr. Berg says, ``NoHo is a reflection of a slower, grass-roots time. We're in a recession, and we all have to move more slowly and work together.''

Mr. Cox agrees. ``The economy has helped to coalesce the NoHo movement. If we were all making a lot of money, we wouldn't need each other so much. Communities have to come up with new tactics to survive, let alone thrive,'' he adds.

Last year, Cox helped found the Valley Theater League, a consortium of some 37 legitimate theaters in the San Fernando Valley.

``I tapped into this huge desire to centralize Los Angeles artistically, culturally, and socially,'' he says. The League helps plan events and keeps artists in the vast Valley (population: 1 million and growing) in communication. Newspaper fragments city

The League also is fighting a new move by the city's largest daily newspaper, The Los Angeles Times. Last year, the Times came out with neighborhood-news pullout sections delivered only in those areas. Cox says now San Fernando Valley news is separate from the main city edition, and the effect has been devastating.

He says within a week after the new edition started a year ago, patronage at numerous Valley theaters dropped drastically. He says he feels the pullout also contributes to the compartmentalization of the city, which NoHo is trying to fight.

Organizers say NoHo is already attracting people from around the city. Cox says he is working with five new requests for NoHo theater space from Hispanic and African-American theater groups. The Chamber of Commerce's Jim Mahfet says he can't measure movement in dollars yet, but if calls are any indication, interest in relocating to NoHo is high. ``Every day I get calls from arts groups and art related businesses,'' he adds. ``That's new.''

City officials say the arrival of the final link of the L.A. mass transit Red Line station in NoHo by the year 2000 will also help. It will connect North Hollywood to the greater Los Angeles area.

But NoHo supporters say the true indication of the success of a new idea is in the depth and breadth of its local support. ``We're circling the wagons. We're behind NoHo, and we're going to do everything we can to make it work,'' says Bob Vickery, general manager at Hallie St. Mary's. ``After all, we're the ones who lose if it doesn't.''

The full vision of CAD head Al Nodal is a ways off. But, he says, ``NoHo is full of serious professionals giving the area a new identity'' - an identity from which it can build bridges with other parts of the city, he adds.

Plans for the second annual NoHo Arts Festival next June are already underway, and if what has happened so far is any indication of the future, NoHo is an idea whose time - and place - has come.

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